Kettlebells: From Russia With Love and Macho

A few weeks ago I got a 35 lb. kettlebell. Not one to go to gyms often in the past twenty years, I had never heard of kettlebells until about at year ago, although they've been used in Russia for several hundred years. It's been a happy discovery for this TOJ.

A kettlebell workout is challenging, but very effective and simple. It takes some getting used to because the exercises are ballistic, required you to swing a heavy weight, and involve your total body. But I do think they are superior in many ways to barbells and dumbbells that focus on isolated muscle groups. When I finish a workout, I feel a relaxed fatigue from my shoulders to my feet. And I think they are making me stronger.

When my children were little kids, we had book of Russian fairy tales, all based on animal stories. What was different than those tales and, say, "The Three Bears," was that they all had unhappy endings. They were cautionary tales of animals with human foibles, which would eventually end with the hero of the story being eaten by another animal or freezing to death. I remember thinking that being raised in a culture like this would make for a tough adult.

In the days of the Soviet Union, the Russian athletic establishment was the embodiment of this Spartan view of life. They were notorious for grueling workouts, harsh training conditions, and applying science to "manufacturing" great athletes. And they did. The Soviets were always top medal winners in the winter and summer Olympics.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire back in the 1980's, the Russian Army and US Special Forces started training under the guidance of Pavel Tsatouline, a Russian solider and conditioning coach. To our embarrassment, the Russian soldiers exhibited better strength and endurance than our soldiers. The former trained almost exclusively with kettlebells.

In Russia, kettlebells, used for centuries as counter-weights in farm commerce, were already widely used by soldiers, athletes, farmers and workers to develop and display their strength. Most Russians have always been relatively poor, certainly not able to pay a monthly fee to workout on the Nautilus. So kettlebells kept them strong.

A born entrepreneur, Tsatouline, now Pavel, Inc., found a tremendous opportunity in obese, exercise-starved America, and has created a whole kettlebell franchise with the weights, books, DVDs and trainer certification. There are hundreds of imitators, but he is a credible source regarding how to train with a kettlebell.

His books, though full of solid exercise physiology, can be sort of funny because they are riddled with military macho. Weightlifters are referred to as warriors. He describes the fat-burning aspects of the kettleball as superior to the "dishonor of diet and aerobic exercise." (He reminds me of the testosterone-hyped writers in Men's Health magazine; don't know why the weight-lifter types have such a visceral reaction to skinny marathoners!)

However, Pavel is a master of the kettlebell, which requires a lot of technique to get the benefits and avoid injury. Working out with a kettleball is demanding and different to what I was used to with conventional weights. You use your core muscles to lift and balance a large, unstable (because of the handle) weight overhead with your arm locked. It's important to keep the wrist relatively straight, which can be hard if you do not control the kettlebell well enough to avoid slamming it against your wrist (it hurts!).

You will find tons of video about the kettleball on YouTube, including some that show incredibly strong Russians flipping them around like jugglers. However, be careful because some of the demonstrator in the videos display poor technique.

I plan to incorporate a kettlebell workout at least twice a week. There's no doubt it maximizes overall functional strength, stability, flexibility, and balance. It's perfect if you only have 30 minutes to exercise because in that time you can reach complete muscle exhaustion if you keep rests short between sets.

Now when I think of Russia, I don't think vodka, caviar, Baryshnikov, Tolstoy or Siberia. I think kettlebells.

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